In C&I’s June 2011 issue, we featured singer-songwriter and actor Ryan Bingham as he was making his way to the top.
One of the latest legends to arise from the Southwest badlands is that of Ryan Bingham—a stalwart cowboy who has fit several decades of living into his brief existence. A man with a voice as gravelly and enchanting as the hardscrabble land he grew up on. He uses that voice to tell of desperate times and desolate roads. It's a folk tale story with a fairy tale ending.
I've been paying them roadhouse dues/ Since I was a young boy. / Drifting and ramblin' with my old man. / Searching around for that West Texas oil.
When he was 5, the Binghams lost Ryan's grandfather's 72-square-mile ranch in New Mexico and went searching for oil in Bakersfield, California. Five years later, they were in West Texas, chasing hope but finding hardship and moving continually. Midland, Odessa, Laredo—the only constant during his childhood was rodeo. "It was kind of like Little League baseball for me," says Bingham, who started riding steers at 11 and bulls at 15. During his teens he mixed rodeoing with manual labor, taking jobs working construction on ranches, shoeing horses, building fences, pouring concrete, and herding cattle.
Have your fingers bled, boy/ Across sin's strings, / Tied to the wooden box / That you're playin' across your knee?
When he was 17, Bingham discovered his passion for music when a Mexican neighbor taught him how to play the mariachi song "La Malaguena." He began picking out melodies to go with words he wrote traveling from rodeo to rodeo. His musical education had come from records his uncle salvaged from the jukebox of a bar near his family's old ranch — "everything from Bob Wills to Bob Marley. A lot of the Roll ing Stones, Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt. I was always a fan of the music, but I didn't really have much guidance." As a result, Bingham's music often didn't follow traditional style and structure, sometimes to the frustration of other musicians. "It took a long time to find a band," Bingham says, laughing. "No one wanted to play with me."
Take me to France and watch me dance, / Let me drink that wine, / Spinning around a dark-haired girl, / Having us a good ol' time.
At 21, Bingham was working at Bad Company Rodeo in the border town of Del Rio, Texas, when he caught the attention of a cowboy entertainer who asked if he wanted to take a trip to Paris. "I told him I'd love to get the hell out of here for a while. They were looking for a couple of cowboys and American Indians to come over and be a part of a show." The gig was Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at Disneyland Paris, and Bingham shortly found himself in the City of Light firing six-shooters, riding horses, and driving covered wagons for Europeans fascinated with the American West. "I was playing cowboys and Indians, man. It was the real Wild West show just like they had back in the day. Riding horseback, live buffalo, stagecoach wrecks-it was pretty wild."
When Bingham returned to Texas, he realized he was increasingly distracted by music. He rode his last bull in 2004, scraped together a few musicians who could stand his unconventional style, and began booking shows.
I might have took a few wrong turns, / Down a few wrong roads, / Wound up in a few wrong towns, / Where nobody cares or goes.
Bingham and his band, The Dead Horses, hit the road-and hard times. "We'd just go and start driving and try to make our way to these little towns and beg for gigs in bars or coffee shops or people's houses. Sometimes if we didn't have a gig or enough money, we'd just hang around that town until someone would let us play."
Then came a fateful adventure on the way to California. "When I was in the Wild West show, I lived with these Navajo Indians and I became really good friends with them. One of the guys that I lived with over there made jewelry on the reservation. On one of our first trips out to L.A., we were broke down and stranded and ended up making our way over to the Navajo reservation and staying there for a few days. They gave us these bracelets and did a ceremony to help us on our way. We ended up making it to California."
That's where The Dead Horses got their first big break—at a bar called King King on Hollywood Boulevard. "I think they just gave us the gig out of pity. We had broken down and they were like, 'Well, I guess you guys can play here for a little while.' There were four or five people in the crowd and [The Black Crowes former lead guitarist] Marc Ford just happened to be one of them."
Ford began working with them immediately, teaching them how to play as a band. "It was like going to rock-and-roll school," Bingham says. 'I'd never picked up an electric guitar until I met him." Ford stripped off the Nashville flair that The Dead Horses had adopted and got them back in touch with their bare-bones grit. The result was Mescalito and the follow-up album, Roadhouse Sun.
But on the south side of heaven won't you take me home. / Cause I've been broke down for so long, and, Lord, it's getting cold.
Another turning point came one weekend in July 2006. Outlaw country musician Terry Allen had invited friends to celebrate his wedding anniversary in the high-desert West Texas art enclave of Marfa. Joe Ely, Robert Earl Keen, Butch Hancock, Guy Clark, and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne were all there, playing in a small dive bar during the day and gathering around a campfire at night.
Even in that elite singer-songwriter crowd, Ely says, everyone could tell that Bingham was something special — "the legitimate heir to the hard-traveling, deep-knowing likes of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams," Allen would later say. Ely thinks he knows why Bingham made such an impression: "He's been there. A lot of people like the romance of it all, but they haven't been there ... they really haven't stood right in the middle of what they're actually singing about. When [Ryan] sings a song he takes you there with him."
A few of those musicians took Bingham under their wing. Ely was particularly helpful. "Ryan was out in a beat-up old car with a band, about starved to death going from town to town," Ely remembers. So he put Bingham up in his house for a few weeks and set him up with some gigs.
Well I've been a desperado in West Texas for so long, Lord, I need a change. / For 10 long years this old place ain't seen a drop of rain.
Bingham was still just getting by when his music caught the attention of director Scott Cooper, who had a script for a movie about a has-been country singer and told Bingham to give him a call if he came up with anything good. "I hadn't heard from the director for a couple months and I didn't really know if they were still interested, [but] I called to tell him I had this song." Bingham suddenly found himself in the company of Cooper, legendary producer T Bone Burnett, and Jeff Bridges. "They said, 'All right, man, let's hear it with this song.' I was kind of in the hot seat there for a minute. Right away they liked it and said, 'That's going to be the one.'"
The movie was Crazy Heart, and the song was "The Weary Kind." In the movie, Bingham and The Dead Horses even got to play the backing band in a scene where Bad Blake (Bridges) performs in a bowling alley. In the movie, Blake—a character inspired by Hank Thompson, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings—goes on to clean up his act and transform his life with the best song he's ever written.
"The Weary Kind" went on to win a Golden Globe, an Oscar, and a Grammy. And it changed Bingham's life.
His third record, Junky Star, debuted at No. 2 on the country chart. Produced by Burnett, it's 12 tracks of grit and growth: "Traveling around the country the past couple years and seeing the condition that the country is in and the condition that a lot of people are in, I gradually moved from writing about what I've gone through to what everybody else is going through." The record was lauded as one of the best albums of 2010.
No longer begging for gigs, 30-year-old Bingham is now touring the country to sold-out shows. And he's finally got himself a steady residence in the Topanga Canyon area of Los Angeles, where he's taken up riding surfboards in place of riding bulls.
Has all the attention affected the former bronc buster? You can hear he hasn't budged much from his West Texas roots when he says, "It damn sure feels nice to have a house and a roof over your head after it's all said and done."
This story originally appeared in our June 2011 issue
Photography: (All images) courtesy Rodney Bursiel